Cultural racism, sometimes called neo-racism, new racism, or differentialist racism, is a concept that has been applied to prejudices and discrimination based on cultural differences between ethnic or racial groups. This includes the idea that some cultures are superior to others, and that various cultures are fundamentally incompatible and should not co-exist in the same society or state. In this it differs from biological or scientific racism, meaning prejudices and discrimination rooted in perceived biological differences between ethnic or racial groups.
The concept of cultural racism was developed in the 1980s and 1990s by West European scholars like Martin Barker and Étienne Balibar, who were influenced by American critical race theory. These theorists argued that the hostility to migrants then evident in Western countries should be considered racism, a term that had been used to describe discrimination on the grounds of perceived biological race since the 1930s. They argued that while biological racism had become increasingly unpopular in Western societies during the second half of the 20th century, it had been replaced by a new, cultural racism that relied on a belief in intrinsic and insurmountable cultural differences instead. These scholars, for instance, argued that while the notion of a white race that was biologically superior to other races had fallen out of favour, its place had been taken up by a belief that Western culture was superior to other cultures.
Three main arguments as to why beliefs in intrinsic cultural differences should be considered racist have been put forward. One is that hostility on a cultural basis can result in the same discriminatory and harmful practices as belief in intrinsic biological differences, such as exploitation, oppression, or extermination. The second is that beliefs in biological and cultural difference are often interlinked and that biological racists use claims of cultural difference to promote their ideas in contexts where biological racism is considered socially unacceptable. The third argument is that the idea of cultural racism recognises that in many societies, groups like immigrants and Muslims have undergone racialization, coming to be seen as distinct social groups separate from the majority on the basis of their cultural traits. Influenced by critical pedagogy, those calling for the eradication of cultural racism in Western countries have largely argued that this should be done by promoting multicultural education and anti-racism through schools and universities.
The utility of the concept has been debated. Some scholars have argued that prejudices and hostility based on culture are sufficiently different from biological racism that it is not appropriate to use the term "racism" for both. According to this view, incorporating cultural prejudices into the concept of racism expands the latter too much and weakens its utility. Among scholars who have used the concept of cultural racism, there have been debates as to its scope. Some scholars have argued that Islamophobia should be considered a form of cultural racism. Others have disagreed, arguing that while cultural racism pertains to visible symbols of difference like clothing, cuisine, and language, Islamophobia primarily pertains to hostility on the basis of someone's religious beliefs.
The concept of "cultural racism" has been compared with Martin Barker's concept of "new racism", Étienne Balibar's notion of "neo-racism", and Pierre-André Taguieff's idea of "differentialist racism". Another term used has been "the racism of cultural difference".
The term "racism" is one of the most controversial and ambiguous words used within the social sciences. This academic usage is complicated by the fact that it is also common in popular discourse, where it is often employed as a term of "political abuse". It was coined in the 1930s, primarily to describe the anti-Semitic policies enacted in Nazi Germany. These policies were rooted in the Nazi government's belief that Jews constituted a biologically distinct race that was separate from what they believed to be the Nordic race inhabiting Northern Europe. This differed from earlier forms of anti-Semitism, which rarely regarded Jews as a distinct race. During the mid-20th century, this "classical" understanding of racism as being rooted in the biological differences between races was associated not only with Nazi racial doctrine but also with the apartheid system in South Africa and the racial segregation found in southern areas of the United States. Following the Second World War, when Nazi Germany was defeated and biologists developed the science of genetics, the idea that the human species sub-divided into biologically distinct races began to decline.
From the 1980s onward, there was considerable debate—particularly in Britain, France, and the United States—about the relationship between biological racism and prejudices rooted in cultural difference. By this point, most scholars of critical race theory rejected the idea that there are biologically distinct races, arguing that "race" is a culturally constructed concept created through racist practices. These academic theorists argued that the hostility to migrants evident in Western Europe during the latter decades of the twentieth century should be regarded as "racism" but recognised that it was different from historical phenomena commonly called "racism", such as racial anti-Semitism or European colonialism. They therefore argued that while historic forms of racism were rooted in ideas of biological difference, the new "racism" was rooted in beliefs about different groups being culturally incompatible with each other.
The scholars Carol C. Mukhopadhyay and Peter Chua defined "cultural racism" as "a form of racism (that is, a structurally unequal practice) that relies on cultural differences rather than on biological markers of racial superiority or inferiority. The cultural differences can be real, imagined, or constructed." Elsewhere, in The Wiley‐Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, Chua defined cultural racism as "the institutional domination and sense of racial‐ethnic superiority of one social group over others, justified by and based on allusively constructed markers, instead of outdated biologically ascribed distinctions."
—Sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer, 2004
Balibar, a philosopher, linked this new racism to the process of decolonization, arguing that while older, biological racisms were employed when European countries were engaged in colonising other parts of the world, the new racism was linked to the rise of non-European migration into Europe in the decades following the Second World War. He argued that "neo-racism" replaced "the notion of race" with "the category of immigration", and in this way produced a "racism without races". Balibar described this racism as having as its dominant theme not biological heredity, "but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but 'only' the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of lifestyles and traditions". He nevertheless thought that cultural racism's claims that different cultures are equal was "more apparent than real" and that when put into practice, cultural racist ideas reveal that they inherently rely on a belief that some cultures are superior to others.
The geographer Karen Wren defined cultural racism as "a theory of human nature where humans are considered equal, but where cultural differences make it natural for nation states to form closed communities, as relations between different cultures are essentially hostile." She added that cultural racism stereotypes ethnic groups, treats cultures as fixed entities, and rejects ideas of cultural hybridity. Wren argued that nationalism, and the idea that there is a nation-state to which foreigners do not belong, is "essential" to cultural racism. She noted that "cultural racism relies on the closure of culture by territory and the idea that 'foreigners' should not share the 'national' resources, particularly if they are under threat of scarcity."
The sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel noted that "cultural racism assumes that the metropolitan culture is different from ethnic minorities' culture" while simultaneously taking on the view that minorities fail to "understand the cultural norms" that are dominant in a given country. Grosfoguel also noted that cultural racism relies on a belief that separate cultural groups are so different that they "cannot get along". In addition, he argued that cultural racist views hold that any widespread poverty or unemployment faced by an ethnic minority arises from that minority's own "cultural values and behavior" rather than from broader systems of discrimination within the society in inhabits. In this way, Grosfoguel argued, cultural racism encompasses attempts by dominant communities to claim that any marginalised communities are at fault for their own problems.
In 2008, Mukhopadhyay and Chua noted that the concept of "cultural racism" originated in Europe and had made less of an impact in the United States. They noted that not all scholars who used the term did so in the same way.
Referring specifically to the situation in the United States, the psychologist Janet Helms defined cultural racism as "societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of White culture (e.g., language, traditions, appearance) are superior to those of non-White cultures". She identified it as one of three forms of racism, alongside personal racism and institutional racism. Again using a U.S.-centric definition, the psychologist James M. Jones noted that a belief in the "cultural inferiority" both of Native Americans and African Americans had long persisted in U.S. culture, and that this was often connected to beliefs that said groups were biologically inferior to European Americans. In Jones' view, when individuals reject a belief in biological race, notions regariding the relative cultural inferiority and superiority of different groups can remain, and that "cultural racism remains as a residue of expunged biological racism." Offering a very different definition, the scholar of multicultural education Robin DiAngelo used the term "cultural racism" to define "the racism deeply embedded in the culture and thus always in circulation. Cultural racism keeps our racist socialization alive and continually reinforced."
Theorists have put forward three main arguments as to why they deem the term "racism" appropriate for hostility and prejudice on the basis of cultural differences. The first is the argument that a belief in fundamental cultural differences between human groups can lead to the same harmful acts as a belief in fundamental biological differences, namely exploitation and oppression or exclusion and extermination. As the academics Hans Siebers and Marjolein H. J. Dennissen noted, this claim has yet to be empirically demonstrated.
The second argument is that ideas of biological and cultural difference are intimately linked. Various scholars have argued that racist discourses often emphasise both biological and cultural difference at the same time. Others have argued that racist groups have often moved toward publicly emphasising cultural differences because of growing social disapproval of biological racism and that it represents a switch in tactics rather than a fundamental change in underlying racist belief. The third argument is the "racism-without-race" approach. This holds that categories like "migrants" and "Muslims" have—despite not representing biologically united groups—undergone a process of "racialization" in that they have come to be regarded as unitary groups on the basis of shared cultural traits.
Several academics have critiqued the use of "cultural racism" to describe prejudices and discrimination on the basis of cultural difference. Those who reserve the term "racism" for biological racism for instance do not believe that "cultural racism" is a useful or appropriate concept. The sociologist Ali Rattansi noted that "cultural racism" could be seen to stretch the notion of "racism" "to a point where it becomes too wide to be useful as anything but a rhetorical ploy." He suggested that beliefs which insist that group identification require the adoption of cultural traits such as specific dress, language, custom, and religion "might more properly be subsumed under the ideas of ethnicism or ethnocentrism" and when incorporating hostility to foreigners "may be said to border on xenophobia."
—Sociologist Ali Rattansi, 2007
Similarly, Siebers and Dennissen questioned whether bringing "together the exclusion/oppression of groups as different as current migrants in Europe, Afro-Americans and Latinos in the US, Jews in the Holocaust and in the Spanish Reconquista, slaves and indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquista and so on into the concept of racism, irrespective of justifications, does the concept not run the risk of losing in historical precision and pertinence what it gains in universality?" They suggested that in attempting to develop a concept of "racism" that could be applied universally, exponents of the "cultural racism" idea risked undermining the "historicity and contextuality" of specific prejudices. In analysing the prejudices faced by Moroccan-Dutch people in the Netherlands during the 2010s, Siebers and Dennissen argued that these individuals' experiences were very different both from those encountered by Dutch Jews in the first half of the 20th century and colonial subjects in the Dutch East Indies. Accordingly, they argued that concepts of "cultural essentialism" and "cultural fundamentalism" were far better ways of explaining hostility to migrants than that of "racism".
Baker's notion of the "new racism" was critiqued by the sociologists Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown. They thought it "problematic" because it relied on defining racism not as a system based on the belief in the superiority and inferiority of different groups, but as encompassing any ideas that saw a "culturally defined and constituted group as being a biological or pseudo-biological entity". Thus, Miles and Brown argued, Baker's "new racism" relied on a definition of racism which "eliminates the distinction between racism" and concepts such as nationalism and sexism. The sociologist Floya Anthias critiqued early ideas of the "neo-racism" for failing to provide explanations for prejudices and discrimination towards groups like the Black British, who shared a common culture with the dominant White British population. She also argued that the framework failed to take into account positive images of ethnic and cultural minorities, for instance in the way that British Caribbean culture had often been depicted positively in British youth culture. In addition, she suggested that, despite its emphasis on culture, early work on "neo-racism" still betrayed its focus on biological differences by devoting its attention to black people—however defined—and neglecting the experiences of lighter-skinned ethnic minorities in Britain, such as Jews, Romanis, the Irish, and Cypriots.
The geographer James Morris Blaut argued that in Western contexts, cultural racism replaces the biological concept of the "white race" with that of the "European" as a cultural entity. He noted that as a result of cultural racism, many white Westerners saw themselves not as members of a superior race, but of a superior culture, referred to as "European culture", "Western culture", or "the West". For Blaut, cultural racism "needs to prove the superiority of Europeans, and needs to do so without recourse to the older arguments from religion and from biology". In his view, it does so by "constructing a characteristic theory of cultural (and intellectual) history" which maintains that "nearly all of the important cultural innovations which historically generate cultural progress occurred first in Europe, then, later, diffused to the non-European peoples." He suggested that the idea did not hold that this cultural superiority was a new phenomenon, but that it had appeared in the ancient world and had continued into the present; "cultural racism claims that a vast number of these European cultural causes of progress, cultural mutations, occurred, throughout history, one after another, each adding further impetus to the progress of Europe, each pushing Europe farther ahead of all other civilizations." Blaut was of the view that most of those who held to culturally racist ideas were not personally prejudiced and he cautioned against referring to said individuals as racists.
Blaut argued that after the First World War, biological racism began to lose ground in the scholarly communities of many European countries. One of the cause of this was the growth of egalitarian values, reflected in particular by movements like socialism which challenged longstanding ideas about the superiority and inferiority of different human beings. Another contributing factor was opposition to Nazism, a far-right German movement which placed strong emphasis on racial hierarchies. In the 1950s and 1960s, biological racism lost the respectability it had previously held in Western countries.
Blaut argued that culturally racist ideas were developed by Western academics tasked with "formulating a theoretical structure which would rationalize continued dominance of communities of color in the Third World and at home." He expressed the view that culturally racist ideas were devised so as to promote neocolonialism in the Third World. In his opinion, the sociological concept of modernization was developed to promote the culturally racist idea that the Western powers were wealthier and more economically developed because they were more culturally advanced. This argument, Blaut thought, presented "the path already trodden by Europeans as the only means of overcoming backwardness" and thus emphasized the idea that non-European countries needed to seek the help and advise of European and other Western powers.
Building on these ideas, Blaut referred to the German sociologist Max Weber as "the godfather of cultural racism" because he provided later "social scientists with a theory of modernization, essentially an elegant and scholarly restatement of colonial-era ideas about the uniqueness of European rationality and the uniqueness of European culture history." Wren repeated Blaut's argument, stating that "the essence of cultural racism therefore is that Europeans are not racially, but culturally superior" to non-Europeans.
Wren argued that cultural racism had manifested in a "broadly similar" way throughout Europe, but with specific variations in different places according to the established ideas of national identity and the form and timing of immigration. She argued that Western societies used the discourse of cultural difference as a form of Othering through which they justify the exclusion of various ethnic or cultural 'others', while at the same time "glossing over issues of social and economic inequality" between different ethnic groups. Using Denmark as an example, she argued that a "culturally racist discourse" had emerged during the 1980s, a time of heightened economic tension and unemployment. Based on fieldwork in the country during 1995, she argued that cultural racism had encouraged anti-immigration sentiment throughout Danish society and generated "various forms of racist practice", including housing quotas that restrict the number of ethnic minorities to around 10%.
Wren compared anti-immigrant sentiment in 1990s Denmark to the Thatcherite anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in 1980s Britain. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for instance was considered a cultural racist for comments in which she expressed concern about Britain becoming "swamped by people with a different culture". The term has also been used in Turkey. In 2016, Germany's European Commissioner Guenther Oettinger stated that it was unlikely that Turkey would be permitted to join the European Union while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remained the Turkish President. In response, Turkey's European Union Affairs Minister Omer Celik accused Germany of "cultural racism".
The idea of cultural racism has also been used to explain phenomena in the United States. Grosfoguel argued that cultural racism replaced biological racism in the U.S. amid the 1960s civil rights movement. Clare Sheridan for instance stated that cultural racism was an applicable concept to the experiences of Mexican Americans, with various European Americans taking the view that they were not truly American because they spoke Spanish rather than English. The Clash of Civilizations theory, put forward in the 1990s by the American theorist Samuel P. Huntington, has also been cited as a stimulus to cultural racism for its argument that the world is divided up into mutually exclusive cultural blocs.
In the early 1990s, the scholar of critical pedagogy Henry Giroux argued that cultural racism was also evident across the U.S. political right. In his view, conservatives were "reappropriating progressive critiques of race, ethnicity and identity and using them to promote rather than dispel a politics of cultural racism". For Giroux, the conservative administration of President George H. W. Bush acknowledged the presence of racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S., but presented it as a threat to national unity. Drawing on Giroux's work, the scholar of critical pedagogy Rebecca Powell suggested that both the conservative and liberal wings of U.S. politics reflected a culturally racist stance in that both treated White American culture as normative. She argued that while White American liberals acknowledge the existence of institutional racism, their encouragement of cultural assimilationism betrays an underlying belief in the superiority of White American culture over that of non-white groups.
The scholar Uri Ben-Eliezer argued that the concept of cultural racism was useful for understanding the experience of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. After the Ethiopian Jews began migrating to Israel in the 1980s, various young members were sent to boarding school with the intention of assimilating them to "Israeli values and culture" and distancing them from their parental culture. The newcomers found that many Israelis, especially Ashkenazis who adhered to ultra-orthodox interpretations of Judaism, did not regard them as Jews. When some white Israeli parents removed their children from schools with a high percentage of Ethiopian children, they denied accusations of racism, with one stating: "It's only a matter of cultural differences, we have nothing against blacks".
In 1992, Blaut argued that while most academics totally rejected biological racism, cultural racism was widespread within academia. Similarly, in 2000 Powell suggested that cultural racism "drives many of the decisions and policies in our educational institutions (and in U.S. society in general)", although often on an "unconscious level". She argued that the U.S. curriculum was based on the premise that "White cultural knowledge is superior to that of other racial and ethnic groups", hence why it was taught in Standard English, the literature studied was largely Eurocentric, and history lessons focused on the doings of Europeans and people of European descent.
The scholar of English Daniel Wollenberg stated that in the latter part of the 20th century and early decades of the 21st, many in the European far-right began to distance themselves from the biological racism that characterised neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups and instead emphasised "culture and heritage" as the "key factors in constructing communal identity."
In 1970s France, the growth of the far-right Nouvelle Droite (ND) movement was met by sustained liberal and leftist opposition. In response, the ND accelerated away from biological racism and toward the claim that different ethno-cultural groups should be kept separate in order to preserve their historical and cultural differences. During the 1980s, this tactic was adopted by France's National Front (FN) party, which was then growing in support under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen. After observing the electoral gains of Le Pen's party, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a UK fascist group, the British National Party—which had recently come under the leadership of Nick Griffin and his "moderniser" faction—also began downplaying its espousal of biological racism in favour of claims about the cultural incompatibility of different ethnic groups.
In Denmark, a far-right group called the Den Danske Forening (The Danish Society) was launched in 1986, presenting culturally racist arguments aimed largely at refugees entering the country. Its discourse presented Denmark as a culturally homogenous and Christian nation that was threatened by largely Muslim migrants. In Norway, the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik expressed culturally racist, as opposed to biologically racist, ideas. In his view, Muslims represented a cultural threat to Europe, but he placed no emphasis on their perceived biological difference.
Some scholars who have studied Islamophobia have labelled it a form of cultural racism. For instance, a range of academics studying the English Defence League, an Islamophobic street protest organisation founded in London in 2009, have labelled it culturally racist. Anthias suggested that it was appropriate to talk of "anti-Muslim racism" because the latter involved attributing the Muslim population "with fixed, unchanging and negative characteristics" and then subjecting them "to relations of inferiorization and exclusion".
The media studies scholar Arun Kundnani suggested some difference between cultural racism and Islamophobia. He noted that while cultural racism perceived "the body as the essential location of racial identity", specifically through its "forms of dress, rituals, languages and so on", Islamophobia "seems to locate identity not so much in a racialised body but in a set of fixed religious beliefs and practices". The sociologist Ali Rattansi argued that that while many forms of Islamophobia did exhibit racism, for instance by conflating Muslims with Arabs and presenting them as being uniformly barbaric, in his view Islamophobia was "not necessarily racist", instead coming in both racist and non-racist forms.
In 2018, the UK's all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, chaired by politicians Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting, proposed that Islamophobia be defined in British law as being "a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness". This generating concerns that such a definition would criminalise criticism of Islam. Writing in The Spectator, David Green referred to it as a "a backdoor blasphemy law" that would protect conservative variants of Islam from criticism, including criticism from other Muslims. The British anti-racism campaigner Trevor Phillips also argued that it was inappropriate for the UK government to view Islamophobia as racism. Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council, warned that implementing that definition could exacerbate community tensions and hamper counter-terrorist efforts against Salafi jihadism. While the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats adopted the all-party parliamentary group's definition, the Conservative Party government rejected it, stating that the definition required "further careful consideration" and had "not been broadly accepted". Various British Muslims and groups like the Muslim Council of Britain expressed disappointment at the government's decision.
Balibar noted that in recognising that different human groups do not form biologically distinct groups, cultural racism destabilized older approaches to anti-racist activism, which were designed to tackle biological racism. The cultural racist position argues that when ethnic groups co-exist in the same location it "naturally" results in conflict. Proponents of cultural racism therefore argue that attempts at integrating different ethnic and cultural groups itself leads to racism. In doing this they seek to portray their own views as the "true anti-racism", as opposed to the views of those activists who call themselves "anti-racists". As Wollenberg noted, the "new radical wing of the right[…] paradoxically turns multiculturalist anti-racism into a tool of racism".
— Scholar of critical pedagogy Rebecca Powell, 2000
Giroux proposed using both "a representational pedagogy and a pedagogy of representation" in order "to address the challenge of the new cultural racism". This would include encouraging students to read accounts of race relations which challenge "the liberal view of black/white relations", which he believed concealed their underlying ideology and the existence of racial power relations. It would also include teaching students "critical methodologies and approaches" which would alert them to how different media reinforce existing forms of authority. Specifically, he urged teachers to provide their students with "the analytical tools to challenge those representations that produce racism, sexism and colonialism through the legacy of ethnocentric discourses and practices". More broadly, he urged leftist activists not to abandon identity politics in the face of U.S. cultural racism, but instead called on them to "not only construct a new politics of difference but extend and deepen the possibilities of critical cultural work by reasserting the primacy of the pedagogical as a form of cultural politics."
Similarly, Powell argued that "schools offer our best hope to address cultural racism", in that it was here that teachers could expose children to the underlying ideas on which cultural assumptions are based. She added that in the U.S., schools should "make a commitment to a multicultural agenda, and antiracism must be at the heart of this agenda for change." As practical proposals, she suggested teaching pupils about non-standard vernacular languages other than Standard English and explaining to them how the latter "became (and remains) the language of power". She also suggested getting pupils to discuss how images in popular media "represent culturally racist assumptions" and to examine historical events and works of literature from a range of different cultural perspectives.